As an owner of a kindle, when I’ve downloaded copies of free Victorian novels from Amazon, I’ve noticed that several books are divided into three volumes. I’ve wondered about this–it’s a bit of a nuisance and makes the argument for opting instead for the 99c or 1.99 collected works in one file version. But while I’ve wondered about the three-volume division, I hadn’t made that much of it, and instead filed it away as a curiosity.
But then I read Bernard Bergonzi’s introduction of George Gissing’s novel New Grub Street and discovered that the 3-volume novel or three-decker as it was called seems to have been the bane of many a writer’s existence in late Victorian England. While never “totally dominant” circulating libraries “found this kind of book a profitable commodity.” Apparently, the price of 31s 6d “remained stable for a remarkably long time,” and while there were plenty of other novels in one or two volumes, they were not popular with libraries.The intro also brings up serialization saying that a writer like Dickens “could reach a wide audience through serialization in monthly parts.”
Nevertheless, for several decades the three-decker was pre-eminent, and the circulating libraries maintained pressure on publishers to ensure that most novels came out in that form (since subscribers could only take out one volume at a time, a reader who wanted all three volumes at once had to take out three subscriptions). Publishers in turn put pressure on their authors by offering much higher payment for the three-decker than for novels in one or two volumes.”
So with all this pressure, couldn’t a writer produce 3 volumes at sixty pages each? No the guidelines were quite strict. No cheating allowed: “each volume had to consist of about three hundred pages, with something over twenty lines to the page.” There’s an example given of some poor author who was instructed that a novel “consisted of 920 pages with twenty-one and a half lines on each page and nine and a half words in a line.” What is this, the literary version of Iambic pentameter?
And this brings me back to Edwin Reardon who tries to write the best-seller three-volume book with his wife, Amy tapping her foot and sighing with frustration in the background.Here’s Milvain on the subject of the three-volume system.
A triple-headed monster, sucking the blood of English novelist. One might design an allegorical cartoon for a comic literary paper.
Here’s Reardon’s response:
“For anyone in my position,” said Reardon, “how is it possible to abandon the three volumes? It is a question of payment. An author of moderate repute may live on a yearly three-volume novel–I mean the man who is obliged to sell his book out and out, and who gets from one to two hundred pounds for it. But he would have to produce four one-volume novels to obtain the same income; and I doubt whether he could get so many published within the twelve months. And here comes in the benefit of the libraries; from the commercial point of view the libraries are indispensable. Do you suppose the public would support the present number of novelists if each book had to be purchased? A sudden change to that system would throw three-fourths of the novelists out of work.
Let’s face it; Victorian England or the 21st century, a writer’s life can’t be an easy one. There are no guarantees of sale or success, no pension, no paid holidays, and then we readers can be a fickle bunch. Do writers relate to Reardon fretting over a three-volume novel he hates in order to feed his family and make his wife proud? Is the life of a writer any easier today, over 120 years later? The future of libraries seems questionable, and the publishing industry seems to be undergoing a paradigm shift since e-publishing gained ground. I’d like to think that e-publishing has given authors a little more power over their careers. What do you think?